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Obstacle Course on Capitol Hill

by Robert Bendiner
McGraw-Hill, 231 pp., $4.95

Three out of four voters, according to the polls, favor federal aid to education. One of the Capital’s largest and best financed lobbies, the National Education Association, spends huge sums every year to push such a program. No major interest group will lose anything by federal aid to education; opposition comes largely from the crackpot Right and orthodox Republican businessmen. Yet Congress has repeatedly refused to provide the schools with more than token support.

Robert Bendiner’s Obstacle Course on Capitol Hill attempts to explain this paradox. In sprightly, if occasionally tasteless, prose Bendiner’s chapters alternately describe the parliamentary machinery of Congress, and the way in which this machinery has disposed of some of the federal aid bills introduced in the past twenty years. It is both a fascinating and illuminating book, and has been justly praised by reviewers. None of the reviews I have seen, however, asks whether Bendiner’s analysis of Congress is correct, and whether his prescription makes sense.

Bendiner’s concluding chapter begins this way:

It is plain that sponsors of Federal aid to the schools have again and again been bilked of their prize solely by the mechanical arrangements of the national legislature. That is to say, they have been beaten not because a majority of the Congress decided, after reasonable thought, that the scheme was contrary to the public good, or for any other such high-sounding reason, but simply because a minority used the arrangements in question to have its own way. As we have seen, a standing committee of the House regularly buried the legislation in the 1940’s, sometimes by a single vote; riders and tricky manoeuvres killed it on the floor throughout the following decade; and since then it has twice been done to death by that peculiar institution, the Committee on Rules [my italics].

The implication is clear: since school aid has been defeated “solely by the mechanical arrangements of Congress,” it can be passed only by changing those mechanical arrangements. Unless or until Congress reforms its archaic way of doing business, and allows a majority to work its will freely, there can be little hope of passing the kind of progressive legislature which the country so clearly needs.

Bendiner is not, of course, alone in holding this view. Senator Joseph Clark has made similar suggestions in his new book The Sapless Branch, and there have been dozens of books and articles by distinguished journalists and scholars in the same vein. Bendiner’s effort to prove the hypothesis by examining a particular case in detail is clearly useful. The evidence he presents, however, is not entirely persuasive.

First, there is a question of fact. Is the machinery of Congress really controlled by a minority? A superficial glance suggests that it is: most of the key committees are chaired by Southerners; choice committee assignments go to Southerners in disproportionate numbers; the chairman of the almost omnipotent House Rules Committee is Howard Smith, a Virginian who owes his seat to the Byrd machine. One must ask, however, how these Southerners retain power if they do not follow the will of the majority. The pat answer is that Southern influence rests on the seniority system. But why do Northern Democrats accept this system? Not because they are mindless traditionalists opposed to all change, and not because they lack the wit to conceive alternatives. Rather, they support the seniority system because the alternatives do not seem as likely to increase the power of the liberal block as outsiders maintain.

Northern liberals are not today, and never have been, a majority in either house. Insofar as one can speak of “liberals” and “conservatives,” the conservatives are a majority. The liberals have attained a measure of power only because they had the ingenuity to divide and rule. They have exploited the historical accident of anti-Republican feeling in the unreconstructed rural South; as well as the poor South’s need for federal welfare and pork. Trained in big city machine politics, the liberals have also exploited the Southerners’ desire for personal power. The resulting coalition gives the Northerners control of Congressional leadership and the White House; the Southerners control most committees. Both groups exercise a virtual veto over proposed legislation.

Could the Congressional machinery be modified so that the Southern Democrats lost their near-veto? Theoretically, of course, it can. The Senate could change Rule 22 to allow fifty-one Senators to break a filibuster; the House could, as it did in 1948-50, allow frustrated committee chairmen to take bills directly to the floor if the Rules Committee held them up for more than twenty-one days; committees could elect their own chairmen on merit instead of choosing them by seniority; chairmen could be given less power; and so on. Any regular reader of The New York Times can invent a dozen such reform schemes in ten minutes.

The difficulty with all such proposals is that they would eliminate the Southerners’ only motive for staying in the Democratic Party. The South would have every incentive to form a new coalition with the Republicans if such reforms were put into effect. Such a coalition would have more than enough votes to organize both houses of Congress, freezing out Northern liberals in precisely the way that Northern conservatives have been virtually frozen out since 1932.

The problem confronting the liberal minority was illustrated dramatically in 1961 when an effort was made to curb the House Rules Committee. Bendiner reports this fight in some detail but does not seem to grasp its implications. Fearing that the Rules Committee would refuse to bring the principal legislation of the Kennedy administration to the floor, the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, sought to transform the conservative majority on the Committee into a liberal majority by enlarging the committee. A preliminary headcount showed that there were no more than two hundred members in favor of this proposal—or any other proposal intended to ensure passage of the Kennedy administration’s program. Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith had at least 235 stand-pat supporters; this was, and is, the basic fact of life in the House.

Knowing this, Rayburn told his Southern opponents that unless they supported his plan to add two liberals to the Rules Committee, he would go to the Democratic Caucus and have one of the Committee’s arch-conservative Democrats, William Colmer of Mississippi, purged from the Party (and hence also from Rules). Since Rayburn had the Caucus votes to do this, a number of Southerners chose the lesser evil and voted to add two liberals. Even so, Rayburn got only 217 votes to Smith’s 212.

Given this history, it seems clear that if the “machinery of Congress” is controlled by a minority, it is a liberal one. But more often it is controlled by a majority—with whom Bendiner and I disagree. If this is so, the way to improve Congress is not to try to tinker with the machinery—obviously, a virtual impossibility so long as the liberals remain a minority—but to elect more Northern Democrats, so the liberals don’t have to rely on Southern conservatives to organize Congress.

This is not to say that the machinery of Congress is perfect or that it always works the will of the present majority. It certainly does not. Politics are obviously more complex than simplistic labels like “liberal” and “conservative” imply, and sometimes a bill dies in committee or on the floor when a majority (drawn from both liberals and conservatives) would favor it. The machinery is, moreover, incredibly inefficient, pandering to the egos of legislators far more than the nation can afford. There is enormous inertia built into the system. But inertia is just what most legislators now want from the legislative machinery; nine times out of ten they get just as much action as a majority wants, and no more. Bendiner to the contrary notwithstanding, the voting record on aid to education seems to me to prove this as well as anything can.

Federal aid has never run into trouble in the Senate; the House is its nemesis. Bills have come to a vote on the floor of the House four times in the past generation. Three were voted down. In 1960, however there were (a result of the 1958 election) more Northern liberals in the House than at any other time in recent history. In that year federal aid got a 52 per cent majority. Unfortunately, the version which mustered a majority in the House was not acceptable to the Senate, and the House Rules Committee refused to allow a conference to seek a compromise. This was the one occasion when the will of the majority on education was frustrated by a minority. But it was an exception which proves the contrary rule, for this capriciousness by Rules outraged many otherwise complacent men, and led directly to the reform fight of 1961.

Bendiner, however, regards the house votes against federal aid as misleading, for he argues that many Southerners favored aid in principle and voted against it only because the Powell Amendment was attached. This is true. But a majority which merely favors a proposal in principle and cannot agree who should receive its benefits becomes, for legislative purposes, no majority at all. It is simply two minorities in favor of two different programs. To me the House votes seem a fair, if depressing, measure of the views of the members.

Suppose there had been a working majority in favor of school aid. Would the legislative machinery have produced legislation? One way to answer that question is to look at the fate of some of the school aid schemes which did have majority support. When writers like Bendiner use the term “federal aid to education,” they usually mean federal grants to the states for school construction, teachers’ salaries, or both. this approach, often known as “general aid,” has been favored by the National Education Association and (at least until recently) by the federal government’s Office of Education. Its aim is primarily fiscal. The sponsors hope that grants, however small initially, will gradually increase, slowly shifting the burden of school finance from state and local taxation to the U.S. Treasury. Needless to say, this kind of shift in the traditional pattern of public finance worries many moderates, including some who accept the need for major improvements in public education. Not all of them actively oppose general aid, but they are often ambivalent about it and seldom fight to get it through.

When proposals for federal support have more limited objectives, however, middle-of-the-road Congressmen are sometimes enthusiastic. The National Defense Education Act, for example, which provided money for new science and foreign language facilities, for teacher-training and retraining, for curriculum reform, and for improved guidance and counseling, sailed through Congress with little difficulty. This was at a time when general aid was dormant in committee. NDEA passed because the public was demanding some kind of action in the wake of Sputnik, and because a substantial majority in both houses was prepared to accept action of this particular kind. It passed despite the inadequacies of Congressional legislative machinery, despite the skepticism of the capricious Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and the hostility of the Chairman of the House Rules Committee, and the difficulty of deciding what aid, if any, to give racially and religiously segregated schools. If general aid had commanded equally widespread support, I cannot help thinking it too could have been enacted into law. What Bendiner thinks is not clear. He never raises the point.

There is an eternal quarrel between those students of politics who believe problems are essentially technical and administrative and those who believe they are political and ideological. If the technocratic analysis is right, the results of the November elections are of comparatively little consequence. This seems to be Bendiner’s position. (He hardly mentions the fact that nine Congressional elections took place during the interval he discusses.) If my ideological view is right, a Democratic landslide this November could make the passage of a liberal Democratic program possible. Perhaps we shall see.

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